Posted by: gschloesser | August 11, 2011

Russian Rails

Design by:  Jodi Soares
Published by:  Mayfair Games
2 – 6 Players, 2 – 5 hours
Review by:  Greg J. Schloesser 

Note:  Reviewing a crayon rail game is a bit of a challenge, as all of the games in the series use very similar mechanisms.  Usually, there are only minor rules changes, with the major difference being the geographical setting.  As such, most of the description of the game’s mechanisms will read the same from review to review.  The emphasis will be on the differences in the particular game under consideration.  With that in mind, much of the following description of Russian Rails’ mechanisms is lifted from my reviews of previous crayon rail games. 

Russian Rails from Mayfair Games takes the crayon rail system to the former Soviet Union.  The main twist is that during the course of the game, communism may fall, which results in some minor changes in the rules.  The system is essentially the same as most other crayon rail games.  Basically, each player is building rail lines across the map, attempting to link various cities and then pick-up and transport goods between various cities. Players receive payoffs on these deliveries, so developing direct routes and efficiently using these routes in your deliveries is the key to success in the game.

Rail lines are actually drawn onto the map with grease crayons, which are included in the game, or dry-erase markers, which are not supplied. Experience has proven that those crayons just don’t work properly, so we have defaulted to using the dry eraser markers. These, too, have their problems, but seem to work better than the crayons and are easier to wipe-off once the game is completed.

The map here depicts a broad section of the former Soviet Union, with the majority of the geographical area being Russia and the Ukraine.  Superimposed over the map is a grid of points (known as “mileposts”), and rail lines are drawn so as to make connections between these mileposts. The cost of a connection depends upon the type of terrain being built to and can vary from 1 – 5 million rubles.  Mountains, alpine areas, and rivers are the most expensive to traverse.

Players each receive a locomotive, 60 million rubles and three Demand cards to begin the game. Each player begins constructing track from major city and initially makes two “builds” – constructing up to a total of 40 million worth of track. After this is completed, the game enters its regular cycle. 

On a turn, a player may move a number of spaces (milepost to milepost), not to exceed the limit of his current locomotive, which is 9 spaces for the initial loco. Locomotives can be upgraded during the course of the game at a cost of 20 million per upgrade, but this constitutes the entire build phase of a player’s turn. Upgraded locomotives are speedier and can hold more cargo. The maximum speed for the top-of-the-line loco is 12 spaces.

Once a player completes his movement, he may then build up to 20 million of additional track. Of course, this is further restricted by the amount of money a player possesses, which is in limited supply in the early stages of the game. The idea here is to build routes to the cities wherein you need to pick up and deliver the goods listed on your Demand cards. Each Demand card lists three cities, the type of good they are demanding and the payoff for successfully delivering that good. Each city on the board depicts the type of good that can be secured at that location.  There is no cost to pick-up the goods, and players are free to jettison unneeded goods in any city.  I am not particularly fond of this aspect of the game, as there is little, if any, drawback in speculating by picking up unneeded goods, hoping to acquire a demand card that will list that good.  One of my fellow gamers plays with a house-rule wherein goods can only be jettisoned in cities that either produce or require that good.  This certainly makes for a tougher game.

When building routes, short, direct routes are beneficial, as commodities can be delivered quickly for a fast payoff.  There are no bonuses for most track constructed or benefits for taking the scenic route. Since the only way to earn money in the game is by making deliveries, it pays to get the goods to their destination pronto.  However, many goods are produced in the east and are demanded in the west – and vice versa.  These require lengthy journeys, but usually result in much higher payoffs. 

A player may use another player’s track as opposed to constructing it himself, but this is not always a good idea. Riding another player’s rails is not free – it costs 4 million per turn you ride an opponent’s rail lines. This is occasionally cost effective, but usually only if you can get through a track section in one turn. Sometimes it is completely necessary to use another player’s lines as the smaller cities only allow a limited number of players to build connections to them.

The ultimate objective of the game is to connect to five of the six major cities on the board and amass a wealth of 250 million by the end of a round.  When playing with multiple players, the majority of the tracks are completed about 2/3 of the way into the game and the final 1/3 is occupied by swiftly racing along these tracks delivering goods. Thus, the player who has constructed the tightest line system and has carefully managed his Demand cards will be richly rewarded.

When a delivery is successfully made, that Demand card is discarded and a new one immediately drawn. The new card often requires the player to adjust his plans in order to take into account the delivery opportunities the new card offers. To shake things up, the deck of Demand cards contains numerous event cards that can be minor annoyances or major disasters. Most of these cause some delays in movement or force players to pay extra when constructing in certain areas. Watch out for those floods, however, as they can completely destroy sections of track and destroy some or all of the cargo a player is transporting. There are a precious few beneficial events in the deck, which usually cause extra money to be earned when delivering goods to certain locations.

As mentioned, the main difference in Russian Rails is the geographical setting and the nature of some of the events.  The commodities are also typical of those produced in this area of the world, including vodka, caviar, uranium, etc.  The big event – the fall of Communism – shakes things up a bit by forcing players to lose 20% of their accumulated cash to reflect the destabilization of the ruble.  It also increases the movement costs when entering Russia from its former satellites.  Unfortunately, this one card is mixed randomly into the sizeable deck of cards, so there is a decent chance that it will never appear.  That diminishes one of the main potential features of the game.  I would rather see the card shuffled into the top-half of the deck, which would virtually assure its appearance. 

My assessment of Russian Rails is virtually identical to other games in the series.  I am not a huge fan of the crayon rail game system.  My main complaint against the system continues to hold true here: the games are the perfect definition of the term “multi-player solitaire”. Each player is basically doing his own thing with very little, if any, interaction or interference from his fellow players.  It almost doesn’t matter what your opponents are doing or what goods they are attempting to deliver. There is precious little you can do about it anyway. Each player is simply trying to play his own game, optimizing his routes, massaging his Demand cards and making swift, efficient deliveries. Short of constructing rails aggressively so as to block players from connecting to smaller cities, there is little players can do to interfere with the progress of their opponents. I much prefer games that have a higher degree of interaction amongst the players and there are concrete steps that can be taken to interfere with the plans of my opponents.

The other drawback for me is the length of the game, which consistently clocks in at 1 hour per player. I don’t mind the occasional longer game, but often the winner of the crayon rail games can be determined way in advance of the game actually finishing. Investing that much time in a game that I consider multiple-player solitaire AND when the last few hours must still be played when the ultimate winner is not in doubt is not what I consider an enjoyable use of game time.

Now I say this in full recognition that the crayon rail games have a large number of fans. This group is sizeable enough to have spawned a gaming subculture and to continue to support the release of new games in the series. Some folks are enamored by the system and continue to purchase every version that appears. 

That being said, I must admit that I am warming a bit to the system, and don’t mind the occasional playing – once a year or so is enough.  Sadly, I don’t think Russian Rails adds much to the system.  There is not anything refreshingly new or different.  Even the Fall of Communism event doesn’t dramatically alter the game or give it a terribly different feel.  My two favorites in the series remain Iron Dragon and Lunar Rails, both of which offer enough unique aspects to make them feel different.  Russian Rails fails to deliver in this aspect.  It works just as it is supposed to, but there really isn’t much new.


  1. I am a long time fan of the system. I have never played Russian Rails but I have played most of the others. Yes, it is multi-player solitaire for the most part but I still like it. You have to decide which small cities to build into and which ones to bypass. You have to plan your route to drop off loads and try to fill your train on the way to the new destination. It is this load management that I really enjoy. My dad was a truck driver and I relate the game to the independent truck drivers that have to find and schedule loads so that they are always full. Empty trucks or trains means you are not making money. 8/10

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